For as long as I can remember I have loved coffee…the smell, the warmth, and the feeling…it is definitely one of my comfort foods. However, over the past few years, I have become a bit of a wannabe-tea-drinker. I drink it a few times/week, but mostly in the form of “Sleepytime” Chamomile – and not much else. I often thought….there must be more to tea than this?
Lucky for me, I recently had the pleasure of meeting Lynayn Mielke, an awesome and inspiring person, but also (as luck would have it) a certified tea expert. How cool is that? We spent the weekend together at a conference for wellness professionals and I learned just enough from her about tea that it left me craving more. The day after I got back, I called her for an interview. Below is a transcript of our conversation. We talked for a full hour. About tea. And we probably could have talked for an hour more.
Lynayn is a tea expert, certified from The Specialty Tea Association. Interestingly, she is also a practicing acupuncturist and an expert in meditation and mindfulness. You can find her brewing up a pot of tea or chatting about tea on Facebook. She’s also a holistic health coach, certified by the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, with a Master’s degree in Accupuncture and a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. In her private practice in Annapolis, Lynayn has blended all her specialties into a business where she teaches tea as a daily meditation. She shows people how to use tea to lighten up the mind, body, and spirit. Check out her special discount for my blog readers at the end of this post.
I’m so excited to share her expertise with you. Lynayn is straight-forward, down to earth, and has a refreshing sensibility. So grab a cup of tea, relax, and get ready to learn a whole lot about tea, how it can improve your health, and get Lynayn’s unique perspective on how the “agony of the leaf” relates to the ebb and flow of our lives.
I am a Certified Tea Specialist and have my certification through The Specialty Tea Institute of the U.S. which operates through the Tea Association. I have been studying tea since 2005. We study the science and chemistry of the leaf and its components, what makes up the leaf and the chemistry of it; we basically learn everything from production to growth and what goes on in the leaf chemically to produce what’s in your cup. I have traveled to China, Japan, Taiwan and now Sri Lanka, all of which are major tea producing countries. I’ve visited the tea gardens and plucked tea myself. I have seen the entire processing and manufacturing of tea. For example, in Taiwan we made Tung Ting, which is an oolong tea, and we basically made that tea from start to finish. We worked 23 hours straight as the tea master trained us explaining what he did and we watched the whole process. And then we had our tea.
Wow! So Tung Ting, is that a process or is that an actual type of tea?
That’s an actual type of Formosan or Taiwanese oolong, Taiwanese and Formosan oolongs are sort of interchangeable. That’s how Taiwan is referred to many times, as Formosa, which means “beautiful islands.”
What you described, is that how all tea is made? You said “plucked.” Is that the word you use?
Yes. It’s plucked as opposed to picked. All tea is plucked from a bush. Originally tea grew in large trees, so what we’ve done is we’ve made it an agricultural product, we’ve sort of shaped the trees down to bushes so they are more easily managed and people can walk through and pluck more readily. There are places in China, particularly in Yunnan, where there are original tea trees that are protected by the Chinese government. But it is true that tea actually grows in a tree, and it is a bush now because we made it a bush.
Is it like wine, where there are different regions and each region will have different types of tea?
Absolutely! Tea likes a certain amount of sun during the day. It likes a certain amount of rain. Tea originated in China. It’s also in Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka; it’s also grown in Kenya…many other places around the world, too.
What about Japan? When I think of tea I think of green tea, like Japanese tea.
Yes! Absolutely. That’s what I was doing there in Japan, looking at the different ways green tea is made in China versus green tea made in Japan.
Is there a region known for producing the best tea?
Certain regions and countries are known for producing different types of teas. For example, Sri Lanka is known for black tea production than anything else, Taiwan is known for its oolongs, but they do produce black tea as well that is quite good. India is also well known for its black teas and particular regions, for example, Assam or Nilgiri are known for very specific types of black tea, although again they do produce green, as well as white tea, in India.
So it’s not that it’s any better or higher quality, it’s just a different taste?
Well, no, you just have different types. Basically all tea comes from one plant, camella sinensis. And what makes it different is where it’s grown, how it’s grown, and how it’s processed afterwards. But the plant itself…there is camellia sinensis,-sinensis, and then there’s camellia sinensis-assamica. The camellia sinensis-assamica is found only in Assam. It’s in India and is a naturally larger leaf. My understanding is that when the British left China, which I believe involved the Opium Wars, they stole tea and went to India to cultivate it, and the camellia sinensis-assamica was discovered there.
YES! Well, the camellia sinensis assamica leaf is a little bit different so that’s why there’s a distinction there. But basically YES, you can say all tea comes from camellia sinensis. And there are different varietals and different cultivars of the plant, especially now as tea has become such a great business and each country has it’s research and development people working to make their tea plants heartier, make better varietals and cultivars to give them the qualities and characteristics that they like, just what you would do with other plants.
What makes a cheap tea and what makes those really super expensive teas? Is that about the quality of the tea or something else?
Well, a lot of times the expensive tea has to do with rarity. How often or how readily you are able to get this type of tea. I think when teas are very expensive…if you’re paying a lot of money, then it should be a really high-quality, organic, whole leaf tea that has some rarity or distinction to it. There are classic teas like the Tung Ting, that is a classic Formosan oolong. Tie Guan Yin is a classic Chinese oolong. You know, those are teas that you should be paying a little bit more for because they have quite the standard and they’ve been around. Cheap tea is just tea that not a lot of attention has been paid to. Because in those cases what people are looking for in their cup is a certain color and a strongness…they’re not necessarily going for any subtle flavors. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I would say the current classification of a “cheap tea” is what you’re able to get in a supermarket, which is also vastly changing.
Yes, because I know at my Wegmans there’s a whole tea section.
Exactly! But a cheaper tea, like a red rose or something…it’s not a bad tea, it’s just considered lesser because it’s not as refined a taste. They actually make a specific type of tea for the tea bags because that is really the consumer they are going for. There is a consumer that likes that taste and there’s nothing wrong with it.
And what’s that taste? What are you referring to?
Well, like in a tea bag. Versus the loose tea. So, there’s whole leaf tea which is usually loose. And then there’s what’s referred to as CTC. CTC stands for crush, tear, and curl.
And how are they different?
Well, traditionally, not always now because a lot of companies are putting whole leaf tea into tea bags, or what we now like to call in the industry “tea sachets.” Because they are putting a higher quality of tea in these bags, they are calling it a “tea sachet.”
So it’s not necessarily that if it’s in a teabag that it’s any less quality than the loose tea?
Exactly! That is changing today. Now, you have to be careful and know what’s in your tea bags. But there are some companies coming out with some very good tea in tea sachets. And those would be like silk bags, unbleached cotton…things like that.
You would look at what the bag was made from. You would want to make sure it was a non-chlorine bleached cotton paper, or silk or mesh-like fabric bags.
Then what about the actual tea itself? Is there something that you would want to look for in terms of the ingredients?
Well, you’d probably want it to be a whole-leaf tea. And again, that’s a flavor preference also. I personally like CTC tea in the morning. It’s stronger. The CTC tea is describing the process of what happens to the leaf, so the leaf is not whole anymore. It’s purposely broken up like that through the crush, tear, curl process. And essentially, when you have the leaf that is broken you create more surface area. When you create more surface area more caffeine can come out. So you will have a stronger caffeinated cup when you have a CTC tea versus a specialty whole-leaf tea.
Will it say “CTC” on the bag or the box anywhere? How do you know you have that?
That’s an interesting question, Danielle. I’ve never looked at it. Usually though, what it will say is “whole-leaf.”
So you just know what these CTC teas are, you would not look at the ingredients….there’s no trigger for you that says, “Oh, this is a CTC.”
Well, clearly a Lipton tea bag is going to be a CTC, a red rose is going to be a CTC, stuff like that. Now, you know Lipton for all I know might actually have whole leaf tea sachets.
If a person like myself who is just getting into tea, wants to choose the higher quality stuff, as opposed to the Lipton stuff, is there no way of really knowing that except going straight for the loose type?
Is there anything I could look for in the ingredient list?
You don’t want to have anything in there that you don’t recognize. You know, tea is pretty basic. What you do want to be careful of is if you’re looking for a flavoring that it’s an organic, natural flavoring. A lot of stuff that we don’t want to take in can be used in the flavoring of lesser quality teas. So that would be your biggest concern. I hesitate to mention brands, but most teas in Wegman’s or Whole Foods…they are more expensive, but you are going to get a better quality tea in your cup.
As opposed to what? As opposed to like a Lipton tea? What about herbal tea?
Well this is a really important distinction, most of the time people say “herbal tea” and that’s incorrect. What it really should be called is an herbal tisane. You have herbal and you have fruit tisanes which are on the market. And when you have an herbal tisane, that’s because you have no camellia sinensis in it. We incorrectly call anything you pour hot water over a tea.
When you say “tisane” what does that word mean?
A tisane is just an herbal infusion. And you can have an herbal tisane or you can have a fruit tisane.
What is the actual leaf in there?
Well, it’s herbs…so if you’re having chamomile it’s chamomile. It’s whatever ingredients that you’re having.
Ok, gotcha! So it’s like the herb chamomile made to look like a tea bag?
Yes, but there’s no camellia sinensis in it. It’s not the end of the world that people would refer to it as tea, but my concern around that is that people then think because there has been so much advertising and talking about the benefits of tea that they are getting the benefits of tea.
You’re not getting the health benefits of tea with herbal tea?
Right. You’re getting the benefits of whatever herbs or fruits you’re drinking, which there are benefits too, but you’re definitely not getting the benefits of the camellia sinesis that people think they are getting from reading about it.
How many different types of tea are there?
There’s white tea, yellow tea, green tea, there’s oolong, and there’s pu-erh, that’s an aged black tea…and then there’s black tea.
So those are the categories: white, yellow, oolong, green, pu-erh, aged black, and then black. Is there a higher or lower quality among them?
No, it’s not a higher or lower quality, here is the interesting part where everything comes from the same leaf…where it’s grown and how it’s grown and then the processing that’s done to it afterwards. When I say processing it’s not a chemical processing, no chemicals are used. Americans think that because of the word “processed.” What it is about is how we let the leaf whither, how long we let it sit to air dry, how long we put it through the roller, how long we put it through the heater…that’s what we’re doing to a leaf to get the final product. That’s different for every type of tea. That’s essentially how you get the type of tea you’re going to get.
Ok, so it all starts out with the camellia sinesis. What about white tea? I read that white tea was more special in some way?
Well white tea is basically the bud of the tea leaf and the reason it’s called white tea, if you look at the buds, a particular type of white tea has sliver tip buds, and it has a little down on the leaf that can look white or silver and so that’s where that term comes from.
Is it any more healthy, in terms of the benefits?
Here’s my thing on health and tea in general. Each type of tea has its own particular health benefits. And so, when you work with somebody like myself who is trained in tea and nutrition, when someone sits down and says “I have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and I’d like to lose some weight” I help people coordinate tea with their diet and their lifestyle. I would “prescribe” a tea wardrobe for them. You wouldn’t wear the same coat every day because the weather is different. So you would have different teas for different things. And so I help people create their “tea wardrobe” and they drink different types of teas throughout the day for whatever it is they’re trying to address as well as whatever their taste preferences are. In terms of the antioxidant profile in the tea leaf, it’s different for each type of tea because the processing is different, and different levels of those antioxidants are brought out.
Based on what they do after they’ve picked it?
Exactly. It isn’t necessarily that one type of tea is healthier than another. I think certain teas have gotten a lot of press.
Like green tea?
Yes, but every type of tea has its health benefits, it’s just they’re different for different types of things.
What’s your favorite tea?
I have an unbelievable love for oolongs and that started very, very early on in my tea career, you know, 2002…when I began to study and drink oolong teas. I read an article in a Daoist journal about high-mountain oolongs and just became really interested in them and it was just page after page after page of what the oolongs were able to do and what they were good for and why they were prized in China. I became really fascinated with them. But I’ve always had a love affair with tea. My birthday party when I turned 5 was a tea party. I would always drink a pot of tea with my mother and my grandmother ever since I was a little girl. We always had tea. And then when I went to acupuncture school and began to study herbs along with my education there, I began to realize that what I had been drinking all along was really good for me, and then I saw the article on the oolongs and that was really it. This is a funny story, I ordered an oolong tea from one of the places they had suggested in the article and I spent like $300 and it came and it was just a little tiny box. And I can remember my mother looking at me like “That’s it? Where is the rest?” It was a very expensive, very rare oolong that was only plucked once a year. I was hooked, you know, it was like gold.
Could you taste it, though? Was it a very distinct taste?
The first ones that I drank were very vegetal and they were like, you know, a green…what would be called a green oolong or a jade oolong. And I had never had them before and so I was kind of like “Hmm…this smells like broccoli”…but very quickly you begin to realize how exciting it is to increase your palate and taste things, and you can infuse them multiple times, which is really cool. I learned about what we call “the agony of the leaf” which is the process of the leaf opening up and infusing the water with it as a gift to us. It’s beautiful. To answer the question “what are the health benefits of tea?” Well, obviously it’s the antioxidants. It helps with immune function. I think it’s pretty clear now that we can say green tea with the EGCGs stimulate metabolic finction in the body with weight loss and things like that. The FDA is very clear about not wanting companies to put any true “health claims” on their package. Every year I go to the World Tea Expo which is the trade show for the tea industry and we always have lawyers there giving seminars on what you can and cannot say on your packaging because of the FDA. It’s amazing. So you have to be very careful about that, but there are studies out that confirm, and I think the FDA would agree, the basics of what we clearly know about tea.
And what is that?
The antioxidants, the polyphenols in tea neutralize free radicals in the body which are known to cause aging and cellular damage. There are also recent studies showing that black tea helps with high blood pressure. It’s just that the FDA will not let you put it on a package. But most of the research shows that tea is a beneficial beverage to be including in your daily diet.
Well again, that’s a place where you’ve got to look and see if there’s actually any camellia sinensis in the tea. You know a lot of times those teas…it’s basically just herbs.
Okay, so it’s not even tea?
A lot of times there’s no tea. And those herbs are good for detox, but you’d have to look at what’s in there. And that’s one of the things I actually do with my tea is I will blend tea with herbs because I want people to get the benefit of both. For me, the biggest health benefit for tea is the lifestyle. I teach people how to use tea as a form of meditation and to cultivate a particular way of being around it, taking time for yourself every day to have your daily tea ritual. It’s part of my life. You know, if you won’t give yourself 15 minutes to sit down and do this…and it doesn’t have to take 15 minutes every time…but what I want is that people take that time for themselves to slow down, take something in…to me, that is the ultimate health benefit of tea. When you look at cultures that are submersed in tea…they have less stress, they have less heart attacks, they have less high blood pressure.
That’s so true. And many cultures drink tea.
Tea has been around for over 5,000 years. It’s perhaps probably the first drink of the earth. It’s certainly the second largest beverage with the exception of water that’s consumed. It has a lot of history. Tea was actually used as currency at one time which is why you will see compressed tea bricks. It helps with the transport of the tea, and it was also used as currency. So tea has been very important throughout human history. And when you take a look at other countries, mostly Asia and Sri Lanka and India, that have tea in their cultures…one of the nicest things you can do in Asian cultures is to pour a cup of tea for someone else. And that’s really what started me getting into tea as a way of life and a way to improve overall well being.
Is that a service that you provide?
Absolutely! I do health tea consults. People come to me and say, here’s what I’d like to do, here’s my concerns, and we go into the whole process. Another thing which I think is important for people to know, tea is not as complicated as people think it is. You know, we’re very used to, in America, dropping the thing into the coffee pot, turning it on, and walking away. And actually there is a tea pot now that will do that, it’s by Brevell, and I actually posted it on my “Lighten Up Teas” page with the video. You can put the tea in at night, set the timer just like coffee, and when it clicks on it lowers the basket of tea down into the water at the right temperature, pulls it up at the right time and you come down to a perfectly brewed pot of tea. It’s really phenomenal! And that’s the first time there’s been anything like that. But tea is really two things: it’s leaves and water. So it’s not complicated, and it’s also easy to get top quality of both. You make sure you’re using good quality water and a good quality leaf and you have some time to work around it’s preparation, which means you know how long you brew it for and that kind of thing, and you have a good cup of tea. It’s that simple.
Is cold tea really tea? Like Nestea?
So it must be brewed hot first. So when you’re in the 7-11 looking at Snapple and Arizona teas….is that really tea?
It’s certainly tea…you’re just getting a really low level of the antioxidants.
Yes…those are called RTDs…which are Ready To Drink beverages and they do have the least amount of tea in them.
But for them to say “tea” on it does it have to contain the camellia sinensis or can they say “tea” without it containing that?
I would suggest if you really want some camellia sinensis…Honest Tea is a fabulous brand and also my favorite unsweetened, lemon-lime, organic, ready to drink cold tea is Sweet Leaf.
What would be a high-end store? Like the tea stores in the mall…Teavana?
Yeah, here’s how I feel about it. The more tea vendors there are the better it is for everybody. It just educates the consumer and makes them curious and then that means maybe one day they’ll end up at my door. So really the marketing and big bucks that Teavanna pays to advertise actually helps me too.
Do you sell tea?
Yes. I know where Teavana gets their tea…I know their stores…and compared to what I’m charging for even higher quality tea, it’s outrageous! And sometimes their education is not accurate…what they’re giving to the consumer. But, if I had to choose between a person not having any tea and walking into Teavana, I would have them walk into Teavana.
Ok, so let’s talk about that. So why drink tea over coffee because I’m a coffee person, so try to convince me. (laughter)
So, the biggest difference between tea and coffee in terms of health is what goes on with the caffeine. And so, my understanding is that the caffeine in coffee directly stimulates your heart, which is why you get a jittery feeling and then you kind of have a crash. Tea contains an amino acid L-theanine. The L-theanine combines
with the caffeine and stimulates your central nervous system. So there’s the big difference. Your central nervous system being stimulated is a far different response than having your heart directly stimulated. So yes you are getting caffeine but it’s affecting you differently. From a cultural standpoint, you will see the British have a cup of tea for anything; a death, a funeral…because tea is able to lift you up, but not push you to the point where you’re distracted. It’s a clearness, a stimulating awakeness, as opposed to the overstimulation you get sometimes with coffee.
Definitely. I know many people use coffee to overstimulate!
When I’d have coffee when I was working in retail, I would get so hyper…and I actually process caffeine really well. I don’t have a caffeine issue. We would get so hyper then you’d get nothing done because you were all jolted up. Tea on the other hand, I notice personally, when I was finishing my undergraduate studies…it would allow me to stay awake and focus. Also, there are also some concerns, I have read, around the oils in the coffee bean. And so regardless of whether you’re having decaffeinated coffee or not, those oils are there and my understanding have lead me to believe that they can cause some joint issues. If you have painful joints, coffee can exacerbate that. And then of course there are studies right now that show that coffee does have some health benefits. I don’t think that it is anywhere near tea, though.
Yea, it’s the antioxidants. Although I’m sure there’s more antioxidants in tea than coffee.
Right. Right. So for me, again, there’s a certain mindset around the tea versus coffee that I just choose to be in that mindset versus the other. You know, from a lifestyle kind of thing.
I love that idea. That it’s like a mindset. That’s a good way for me to think about it being a coffee drinker. (Laughter)
And you know, I will sometimes have half a cup of coffee with a meal. But I very rarely finish a cup of coffee. I just don’t want it. Every now and then I will crave the bitter of coffee and Ibelieve there’s some kind of deficiency going on there…a qualification that’s needed and it’s kind of helpful because I’m like “Hmmm, what’s that about? Where’s that going?” And so I’ll look at it from a Chinese medical perspective, bitter is the taste of fire and why am I craving that? So it’s helpful in that aspect. But I can’t really get through a whole cup.
Well, and I think too, in the same way you have a meditative thing with tea, you could have that same feeling about coffee, like an espresso after a meal.
There’s absolutely a coffee culture. There absolutely is and that’s kind of a cool thing too. I don’t tell people “don’t drink coffee.” I just kind of explain to them what’s going on…I do think you are winning from a physiological standpoint by drinking tea than you are coffee still at this point.
What is one misconception about tea?
I think that it’s difficult to brew or you have to know a lot or a there’s a lot involved. It’s really just your water and your leaf. And once you know how to do that it’s not a complex thing. Tea can be made to seem very mysterious and complex and that’s half the fun of it. There’s a Chinese tea ceremony, called Gongfu, and that can be a very ornate, fun thing to do. But you don’t have to do that on a daily basis! I help people find the correct kind of tea vessel that they want to use, we do a lot of travel mugs that people can brew and go…I also focus on getting people interested in what are called multiple infusion leaves. Some leaves you can infuse more than one time and those are great teas on-the-go because once you get those then you’re really only adding water again 2 or 3 times until you have to change the leaf. So once you sit down and talk about it a little it’s very easy to get your system down and then you’re done, you know. Then you can take it to any degree you want.
Do we grow tea in the US?
We do have a tea plantation in the United States, it’s in South Carolina, it’s Bigelow. American Tea Classic is the only tea grown in America. It’s a Charleston tea garden. Bigelow is reintroducing American grown tea and also Hawaii is currently cultivating tea as well.
How do you suggest someone choose a tea for themselves?
Technically it all comes back to flavor profile. And those are some of my best customers. They come in and say “All I’ve ever had is…” and I’ll say “Well that’s ok. It’s ok.” Everybody starts out with a flavor profile or a type of tea that they like or that they’re used to and then you go from there. What I drink now is vastly different from what I drank, you know, 15 years ago.
Sure…because you’ve tasted so many teas!
That was the other thing I liked about oolong…there are so many of them. This is not just something that I do professionally, this is a passion of mine. It’s an interest that I’ve turned into a passion that I pursue really whole-heartedly…I mean it’s why I go to source. It’s why I will default and read about tea or drink tea or play around with different types of teas, it’s a great love of mine and it’s a big part of my life.
I think the tea leaf is so interesting.
It is! My personal belief when I talk about the agony of the leaf…tea leaves, they thrive in adversity, so when the weather is perfect you don’t always get the greatest product, which seems kind of weird. But when there’s an early frost and there’s things that happen, this is sometimes desirable to bring out a particular flavor profile in a tea. And one of the things that I notice and really believe is that this mirrors human life. When we have challenges they make us grow and they allow us to become the full human beings that we are intended to be. When you look at people who have not had adversity or haven’t been tested in any way, they really have not been given an opportunity to know themselves, to know what they’re capable of, to become something new and different. And that to me mirrors the whole agony of the leaf concept. You know, this hot boiling water being poured on you and it’s an opportunity for you to unfurl and show everyone “look what I’ve got!” instead of recoiling and hiding…the leaf opens. And it requires that to open. And so for me there’s a lot of similarities between the tea and life.
Yes, and every time I go to source, when someone says something about the tea plant I’m like “Hmmm…that’s really interesting because that’s the same thing for humans.” It always blows me away. This time in Sri Lanka I got to see how the plants get pruned. After so many years they hack the bushes down and leave them alone for a while; they give them a rest. They kind of say “You can’t produce the way you’ve been producing anymore so now we have to tend to you, and we’ll change the fertilizer and then we’ll come back to you and you’ll be producing again.” It’s like the real ebb and flow of human life also. You know, a lot of times we have to be pruned away, we have to have periods of time when we need to be completely cleaned off for new stuff to come. So it’s just interesting to me, you know, and that’s really why I do what I do. It’s fun.
It’s really fascinating. Thank you so much for this wonderful education on tea and the history of tea. I am excited to start drinking tea myself and maybe even to replace my morning cup of coffee. We’ll see. Thanks again, Lynayn.
Lynayn is extending a special offer just for my blog readers. From now until March 16th, get 20% off her “Tea Wardrobe” consultation in her Annapolis office (also available by phone). Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.